Resource Efficient Innovations Database (REID)

New sensor based on carbon nanotube technology could provide low cost ethylene monitoring solution

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New sensor based on carbon nanotube technology could provide low cost ethylene monitoring solution
US researchers have developed an ethylene sensor which when combined with an RFID tag could reduce waste in the supply chain for fresh produce.
In Development – Currently in development with plans to prototype in 2013 and bring to market within 2 years.

Product Waste Reduction, Shelf life extension

Product Categories

Relevant Materials
Not Applicable

Relevant Packaging Formats
Not Applicable

Supply Chain Phase
Storage, Transportation


A professor working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a low cost ethylene sensor which can measure the levels of ethylene in crates or shipping containers and when attached to a RFID chip it can communicate wirelessly with a hand-held device to report ethylene levels around products.  Ethylene is a gaseous plant hormone which affects plant ripening and therefore monitoring and control of ethylene levels can determine how quickly fruits and vegetables ripen in transit.  This capability is especially important with products such as bananas and soft fruits such as strawberries.
The new sensor consists of tens of thousands of carbon nanotubes. These are sheets of carbon atoms rolled into tubes that act as fast channels for electron flow. Researchers added copper atoms to the tubes which attract ethylene which then binds to the copper atoms and causes the electrons to slow.  The researchers also added very small beads of polystyrene near the nanotubes to absorb and concentrate the ethylene and make the sensors more sensitive. By measuring the electrical flow in the nanotubes it is possible to determine the levels of ethylene on either a real time or dosage measurement.  By adding an RFID chip it is possible to obtain a real time read out of ethylene levels in transit.  Whilst similar sensors have already come to market this system has the potential to do so at a much reduced cost  of around 25 cents for the sensor plus up to 75 cents for the RFID chip. Continued research aims to further reduce this figure.
The sensor can detect concentrations of ethylene as low as 0.5 parts per million (PPM) with the usual levels required for fruit ripening between 0.1PPM and 1PPM, making the system potentially suitable for warehouse use.
The content in this entry has been obtained from publicly available information sources only (e.g. press releases, website and trade press articles) and is subject to completion of a validation process with the technology supplier.

Potential Benefits

If the planned prototype and trial work for this sensor is successful, this solution has the potential to deliver a low cost ethylene sensor which can be used to monitor and manage fruit and vegetable ripening in transit and during warehouse storage. By linking the sensor to an RFID chip the ethylene readings can be used to take management action to control ethylene levels and thereby manage waste by ensuring that produce reaches retailers in optimal condition.

Intellectual Property

The new sensor has been developed and trademarked by MIT.

Consultant View

This technology is one of the many recent and current innovations focused on monitoring or controlling ethylene levels in the supply chain for fresh produce. The researchers claim that this system has the potential to deliver real-time data at low cost compated to  other solutions, which makes it a particularly interesting development. However, as with all monitoring systems, levels of adoption will be dependent on cost/ benefit and affordability to the operator, and this will need to be verified via the proposed prototype and trial work which makes up the next stage of the development programme.
Reviewers who are interested in improving supply chain management for fresh product should consult the REID database and the wider Internet for other sensor and monitoring solutions. Try using search terms such as "Indicators", "Sensors" and "Monitoring and data capture".

Contacts and Further Information

Timothy Swager
John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)77 Massachusetts Avenue
MA 02139-4307
Tel: 001 (617) 253-8929

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